Purity and Debt

In the Torah there are Purity and Debt codes. The codes apply to the table, the household and the sanctuary.

In the Torah there are Purity and Debt codes. The codes apply to the table, the household and the sanctuary. They have different origins and emphases.

The origin of the purity code is in the creation story and the command “You shall be holy as I am holy”. Just as God separates light from darkness the purity code separates incompatibles cf. Deuteronomy 22:9-11 which gives rules on planting different seeds, using different cloth for clothes and ploughing with different animals. But the process continues – clean and unclean animals, women at different times of their cycles, Israelites and Gentiles, those who follow the Torah and the amme ha-aretz (the dirt poor who have no time for the finer points of religion as they strive to survive on a daily basis). The list can extend ad infinitum and at its heart is the idea that every individual should be complete and there should be no mixing of kinds. Any mixing involves pollution, confusion, a curse and ultimately death. Impurity is the beginning of the dissolution of creation back into chaos from which God drew it. The purity codes avoid this – they are about keeping order and control which is one of the traditional roles of religion.

The Debt codes and the Jubilee texts are linked to the Exodus event and the gift of the Land. The land is Yahweh’s and the people are tenants. So the land can never be sold (Leviticus 25:23). The Debt codes extend the graciousness of the first gift to the sharing of the fruits of the land e.g. Deuteronomy 26:12 has tithing every three years to “the Levites, aliens, orphans and the widows, so that they eat their fill within your towns.” Similarly, this occurs with the Sabbatical Year in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 and the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25:23-55 with their cancelling of debts, freeing of slaves, and return of land to the original families.

The Debt codes aimed to avoid the violence of the exploitation of the poor by the rich. But by Jesus’ time, as the land produced abundantly it was not simply seen as a gift but as a source of wealth. So instead of distributing the surplus which was one of the original roles of the Temple and its taxes, it was hoarded for status and private, excessive consumption.

There was still the ideal of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years’ cancellation of debts. But it merely lead to no one being willing to lend money near a Jubilee year. A leading Rabbi in Jesus’ time, Hillel, proposed an exception clause (the prosbul) making possible loans in the years before the Sabbath and exempting them from cancellation. This might have helped the economy but it defeated the law. The short-term effect was relief for hungry and over-taxed peasants but the long-term effect was permanent debt.

It was the law of Jubilee that Jesus echoed in his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, choosing the text of the prophet Isaiah 61:1-2 when he said “he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly…” (Luke 4:16-21). When the rich young man wants to follow him: “Good Master…” Jesus demands he distribute his wealth, (implicitly accumulated by debt, cf. ”do not defraud” v.19) with the poor in Mark 10:27 as a Jubilee act. Jesus accused his opponents of economic injustice cf. Mark. 12:40 and Matthew 23:23. And he opposed the hoarding of goods as futile in Matthew 6:19-21.